It seems like it was just yesterday when we were celebrating the start of Black History Month, and just like that, we are now in the middle of March. Where has the time gone?
In our first blog this month, I’m highlighting a subject dear to my heart, Black children and their challenges in an inequitable system with a particular focus on Black girls.
At the start of my career, I talked about Black children across genders. Folks would reply to my comments with “yeah, we have to fight for Black boys” or “especially Black boys”. These comments ignored the experience of Black girls and did not recognize that racism occurs for Black children regardless of gender.
Their struggle is a double-edged sword, with both racism and sexism a serious issue. Being both Black and a girl is not the problem; the burden is how the world treats you when you are Black and a girl. Unfortunately, in schools, discrimination starts as early as when Black girls are in childcare, starting when they are babies.
Invisibility and Marginalization
The systemic oppression that besets Black girls and follows them into womanhood renders them invisible. This misfortune sees their concerns lumped in with general human rights or undercut by focus mainly on boys. As just mentioned above, this injustice begins at a much earlier age than most people are aware.
Black girls are nearly six times more likely to get out-of-school suspension than other groups of girls. A report from the African American Policy Forum and Columbia Law School’s Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies found that Black girls are more likely to be suspended multiple times than other students.
Dr. Monique W. Morris, featured in my last blog, opined, “We celebrate Rosa Parks and talk about all of these women who were part of the construction of democracy, yet when Black girls speak their truth, they’re told that they are disruptive to the learning process.” So the same qualities of assertiveness and speaking your truth which are celebrated in leaders are deemed as troublesome and undesirable in Black girls and women. The connected result being the exclusion of this group from potentially meaningful and influential positions in the future.
This bias towards Black girls in school leaves them frustrated and feeling misunderstood. This bias also causes adults to view them as deserving of punishment. Disciplinary actions not only result in lost classroom time and stalled academic progress, but they also erode self-esteem and reinforce the idea that Black girls are not welcome in class. Thus exacerbating an already undesirable situation.
According to the National Women’s Law Center, black girls are more likely to be referred to police for disciplinary actions at school. They are charged more often than any other groups of students for non-violent offenses such as truancy, violating curfew or court orders, or running away from their families and foster care placements, according to the Juvenile and Capital Advocacy Project. Another significant number are arrested for survival crimes and misdemeanors, such as petty theft or shoplifting. This does not mean they are doing these actions more often. The data shows for the same action; Black girls receive harsher and more frequent involvement in the carcel system.
Twenty-eight years ago, Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” in a paper to help explain the oppression of African-American women. Crenshaw’s then somewhat academic term is now at the forefront of national conversations about racial justice, identity politics, and policing—and over the years has helped shape legal discussions. “Black girls don’t misbehave more, but experts say they often receive more severe punishments for the same behavior as their White peers” – Hannah Gaber, USA Today. This is the intentional result of institutional structures driven by racist underpinnings.
Research on racial and gender stereotyping typically focuses on the role of one of these social categories at a time rather than race/gender combinations. This has led some scholars to conclude that the relative non-prototypicality of Black women’s race and gender results in their “invisibility” relative to White women and to men of other races (Fryberg and Townsend, 2008, Purdie-Vaughns and Eibach, 2008).
Two studies address whether Black women go “unnoticed” and their voices “unheard” by examining memory for Black women’s faces and speech contributions. These studies found that photos of Black women were least likely to be recognized (Study 1), and statements said by a Black woman in a group discussion were least likely to be correctly attributed (Study 2) compared to men and other women. The importance and implications of invisibility as a unique form of discrimination are discussed at length.
Lending weight to these pronouncements is the fact that when the feminist movement first began, its premise was for White women to get voting rights but excluded Black women. So even White women when fighting for their rights did not think that Black women should be included in that universal suffrage.
As one of my favorite authors, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, said: “We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller”. This, to me, is the tragedy of humanity in this age and cannot be allowed to continue unchecked. That is why I believe that we need to listen to Black Educators about educating Black children. Last month’s blog post highlighted the work of such educators and their work in this regard and I would urge you to read it if you haven’t already done so.
So I ask you to now reflect… What messages are you sending the girl and femme students/children around you? One way or another you are shaping their future and that of all humanity.
For more information on this topic please read this blog I co authored with my colleague.